What end do we have in mind?

identityflickr.jpg  I had a conversation today with a student about class rank, and the detrimental effects she’s felt as a result.   I won’t go into details here due to privacy for her concerns, but it made me once again wonder what we are doing to children in our high schools in this country.

We’ve created a high school to college system that too often reinforces the idea that numbers are more important than learning;  that scores are more important than wisdom and knowledge; and that stress and overwork are valued qualities and a way of life that our students should aspire to.  

We fret about students who are only concerned about their grades or class rank (or some parents who are), but we also have systems that place the highest values on those things.  There’s a legitimate reason that they have these concerns.  So, I think we need to truly ask ourselves as campuses, what end do we have in mind?  What do we want our students to learn about learning?

In his book The Passionate Learner, Robert L. Fried reminds us that  “every child is a passionate learner.  Children come into the world with a desire to learn that is as natural as the desire to eat and move and be loved. . . .”

He asks:  “So what has happened for so many children, along the way, to transform the joy of learning that every toddler displays into the resistance and ennui we see too often in the classroom?”

While his book points out the complex issues behind this question, I also wonder if we lose too much of the joy of learning in high schools in the pursuit of achievement records, not achievement in “learning”?  

Fried reminds us:

“William Butler Yeats, who was a school official as well as a poet, admonishes us that ‘education is not about filling a pail, it’s about lighting a fire.’  In a world where standards of pail filling seem to have overwhelmed efforts at fire lighting, Yeat’s injunction burns.”

How can we find ways to light that fire?   How can we reevaluate our systems so that they reinforce the importance of students as learners, not performers?   How can we re-envision our classrooms so that the end we have in mind is learning, not test results, when some of those tests (standardized tests, AP tests) drive us to emphasize facts, rather than wisdom?   This is something teachers struggle with every day, from campuses like ours in Texas to campuses in South Korea, where Clay Burell bemoans the focus of AP students in his own classes.

But we are the educators, and we do have the opportunity and I think the responsibility to our students to have these conversations on our campuses, with our students, our principals and parents, and with those outside of our campus like legislators or College Board.   We have the responsibility to speak up for children.

As Fried concludes,

“Let us adjust to and accommodate ‘the way things are’ in other matters if we must, but not in advocating for the right of every child to be cherished as a passionate learner. . . . Let us. . .vow first to do no harm, and promise to resist measures that deprive children of their natural enthusiasm and exuberance as learners, their impulse to ask questions, to figure things out, to wonder, to express, to investigate, to construct, to imagine.”

Don’t we have that responsibility to model a different possibility for our students?   Don’t we owe that to them?

8 thoughts on “What end do we have in mind?

  1. Quite an interesting post — and very timely too.

    Just yesterday, a friend and I were having a chat about me returning to the classroom and she asked what grades I would teach and without a hesitation I said PreK – 6th.

    She quickly questioned me on why — and I said, “they still like being in school, they still like their teachers, they still can have fun while learning.”

    Where did we we lose the joy of learning with our older students??

    I think you are right on with this blog’s topic!!

    Thank you for taking the time to write it.

  2. I think everyone wants something to be measured by, especially in the schools. When students can automatically qualify for scholarships based on rank within the class, there is one more milestone that has to be reached. The US is the leader in not taking vacation days. Is that a correlation to needing a way to be measured? We have lost the ability to have fun. Even my brother when he brought his 2 girls up here for spring break, each day they went somewhere, when they got back here they we too tired to do anything. Again not fun, merely a race to the next thing and one more milestone to cross over.

    Thanks for your post.

  3. Students are changing. They are tired yet focused, stressed … all the while showing calmness. They show maturity beyond their years. They want teachers to give them the Reader’s Digest synopsis of a lesson, nuts & bolts, get to the facts, tell them what they have to do with succinct language. They will decide what effort to put into the project based on their needs for grades. No doubt, we educators and parents will ask more questions before answers are clear. I, too, worry about the effects of class rank and the prolonged worry leading up to senior year. I think this generation of young people who will solve their own class rank issues when they become adults. Something vital that we’re not considering today will become clear in helping students achieve greatness.

  4. Carolyn,

    A few weeks back, we had the discussion here among administrators about taking the route of many other schools here in New Jersey and abolishing class rank entirely. However, the discussion wasn’t necessarily based on the criteria you listed, but rather the need for our students to be measured fairly by universities.

    Barry over at http://plethoratech.blogspot.com recently wrote about the things he believes in regarding what our students should be learning in our schools. And while he talks about measurement in terms of assessment, absent is the idea that the only reason our students pass through our classrooms is to reach some pre-determined milestone, or , as you quote above “to fill their bucket.”

    Our goal should not only be clearly articulated in department meetings, but constantly debated and reshaped as we learn more about our practice and our students as learners.

    I will be sharing this post with a group of teachers and administrators we are forming in our district to look at the future of teaching. Great post!

  5. I’m with Jen. By high school, with few exceptions, the fire has been put out by the pail.

    And as long as colleges use the GPA, SAT and AP to decide their admissions, I don’t see students, parents, or administrators realistically moving away from the test-taking=intelligence model.

    The question I circle around more and more these days is, are colleges themselves tiring of this game? Is there any movement on their part towards a different way of measuring or selecting students for admissions?

    I hope to explore that question in some summer research. To me, the ETS/college admissions dyad is the capstone. The arch collapses when we dislodge it.

    Now back to that AP class.

  6. Clay,

    I agree it is a much larger picture than just what we are doing in our schools.

    But I do think if we look back to our own schooling, which really pre-dated the testing mania and college pressures, we would find that the “joy of learning” was present in the minority of our secondary courses. I think the difference was that the pressure on students was significantly less, in terms of the “college game.” Maybe we were able to take ourselves a little less “seriously” because of that–and I don’t mean as students, but we just were able to explore a little more, take courses we wanted to, dabble around more–because we didn’t feel pressured by the system into just taking what raised our GPAs.

    It does seem like this issue is starting to be discussed a little more–and the California College system has been taking some issue with the SAT the last several years, so perhaps there is some slight movement towards addressing a more well-rounded system.

    I also think when we look at the issues of drop out problems for students having more difficulty with school, there are a lot of pieces to think about, but engaging students passionately in school is a really critical piece in their success.

    I keep thinking about hearing Marco Torres speak at TCEA, and seeing what amazing work he was inspiring in his students via his own passion and belief in them and in teaching.

    I think sharing our own passion for teaching as a “calling” is important to our students. When we show up, they show up. (at least more often!)

  7. Vicky,

    I like your point that the students may themselves have the answers to how to make the system better.

    and Patrick, an interesting addition to this discussion–most private schools do not use class rank. So the most prestigious universities are accustomed to sorting out which of the private school students to accept–which leads me to believe that the same could apply to public schools that decide not to rank.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *